The art of curation: Museum curators talk about what they do

Katherine Pill of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg poses in front of the light that projects Peter Sarkisian’s Extruded Video Engine II, a 2007 new media work.
Katherine Pill of the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg poses in front of the light that projects Peter Sarkisian’s Extruded Video Engine II, a 2007 new media work.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

They are a diverse group united by a word: curator. You probably have never met any of them unless you have attended a gallery talk in conjunction with an exhibition. Yet curators, more than any other arts professionals who work at museums, are responsible for what you see and how you see it. • Curators interpret a museum's mission and collection for the viewing public. They organize temporary exhibitions and arrange for traveling shows that enhance or extend the primary mission. They decide how the art will be shown in the galleries. They are active in developing educational and entertainment programming related to the art. They develop relationships with collectors and other institutions for sharing art. They guide the process of acquiring art based on a museum's needs and resources. They, of course, collaborate with other staff members to make these things happen, from the director, the most important community conduit and the one who guides the overall direction, to the professionals who hammer the nails into walls, frame paintings, inventory the art ... and more, myriad vital tasks within the museum. Curators generally coordinate all the moving parts of exhibitions. • In exploring their multiple roles, the Tampa Bay Times has turned to some of the curators of our regional art museums to explain the many ways they perform their jobs, why they chose their line of work and their personal preferences as collectors. Some of their answers in that last area will surprise you.

Participants in this story

University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum

Margaret A. Miller, chief curator of the museum, professor and director of USF's Institute for Research in Art, which oversees the museum, Graphicstudio and USF's public art program

Noel Marie Smith, curator of Latin American and Caribbean art, curator of education and director of USF's museum studies graduate certificate program

Peter Foe, curator of the collection

Sarah Howard, curator of public art and social practice and research associate at Graphicstudio

Megan Voeller, associate curator

Tampa Museum of Art

Seth D. Pevnick, chief curator and Richard E. Perry curator of Greek and Roman art

Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

Katherine Pill, assistant curator of art after 1950

Dalí Museum

William Jeffett (not pictured), chief curator

Joan R. Kropf, deputy director, curator of the collection

Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art

Lynn Whitelaw, chief curator

Florida Museum of Photographic Arts

Zora Carrier, director and curator

Each curator responded to a questionnaire we sent out, and their answers were so thoughtful and detailed. These are highlights, but the quality of their writing deserves a full viewing. For the complete transcripts, which are well worth reading, click here.

Pill: At the most basic level, a curator cares for artworks.

Pevnick: At an art museum like this one (Tampa Museum of Art), my job is first to be sure the collection is safe. After that, to research and interpret the collection. This leads to exhibitions.

Miller: From my perspective, the curatorial process that is most critical is the practice of exhibitionmaking. My core value and focus is to present a program of temporary exhibitions and related educational programs that introduce students and the broader community to advanced international contemporary art.

Whitelaw: Curators are also responsible for the growth and development of the institution's permanent collection (if it has a collecting mission).

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Voeller: A lot of what traditionally falls under the curatorial job description I would frame as the pursuit of a mission to facilitate connections between artists and audiences.

Kropf: I started as a fine artist, producing my own work and taking courses in drawing and painting. My interest in art led me to seeking an M.A. in humanities, art history and museum studies.

Jeffett: After studying art history, I found a position at the Sainsbury Centre at University of East Anglia (in Great Britain) where I worked for several years as exhibition curator.

Howard: I had been working as a production associate at Graphicstudio when the curator of public art position became available. I enjoy working collaboratively with artists and the amazing people at the university and in the community.

Foe: To a large extent, I put myself through school working in a gallery environment — helping to install exhibitions and manage the care (of the art). I started my own business documenting art and providing collection care to collectors. When this position became available, it seemed like a great opportunity to work with a vital, young collection.

Smith: Fresh from earning an art history master's degree at USF, I was hired at Graphicstudio largely because I speak Spanish, and I started working to bring in Latin American artists. When Graphicstudio and CAM merged, director Margaret Miller offered me the opportunity to curate an exhibition. Curating was nothing I set out to do but it has become a logical extension of my interests.

Carrier: As a child, I was visually fascinated by the art collections owned by my parents and family friends. I became more specifically attracted to art's function as a nonverbal form of communication.

Jeffett: I'm charged with international projects.

Kropf: I am an advocate for the works of Salvador Dalí, developing new knowledge and perspectives. I am responsible for growing and interpreting the collection in order to educate, entertain and intrigue our visitors.

Whitelaw: My work includes organization or coordination of four to six changing exhibitions per year, four to six smaller exhibitions and/or permanent gallery installations and other object changeouts.

Pill: In one word, it's varied, and that's the beauty of the job. Installation is my favorite part of working in a museum. At other times, I might be doing research, writing, traveling, meeting with collectors and donors or other administrative tasks. Right now I am working on the exhibition "Marks Made: Prints by American Women Artists From the 1960s." This entails writing (wall) labels, working on the layout, confirming image credits and helping to organize related programming.

Pevnick: I will add that my job is particularly interesting because I oversee the curatorial department and am curator of Greek and Roman art, my specialty. Since we are not an encyclopedic museum, visitors inevitably leap many centuries between galleries at some point. I've tried to find ways to make this leap not only less jarring but also an interesting and meaningful juxtaposition.

Miller: A well-conceived and designed exhibition usually has multiple ways for viewers with varying backgrounds and interests to access the subject-content-meaning of the exhibition. Most of us are constantly stimulated and engaged with social media and rarely take the time to slow down enough to look carefully with an open mind at an art exhibition. Art museums are the ideal environment to hone your observational and critical skills. One can look at the work for aesthetic pleasure and, if engaged, can find many ways to have an in-depth experience. For challenging exhibitions, I often visit, take it in, buy the catalog, review available materials and then, if possible, visit the exhibition a second time.

Jeffett: Just be open to look without any fear and be curious and enjoy the process of looking.

Voeller: We use a discussion method at USFCAM called visual thinking strategies, and I've gotten so that even when I'm alone, as opposed to part of a group discussion, I ask myself the basic question "What is going on here?" about a work of art. Most artworks are richly complex and layered. If you sit in front of the piece and seriously entertain the question, you're going to find a lot.

Smith: Be open to new ideas and experiences. If you really don't understand or hate a work at first sight, ask yourself why. Give the artist and the work a chance; you might be surprised at the result.

Foe: That's a tough one. To some extent, I like the fact that a term associated with what I do can be perceived as something that adds value. On the other hand, overuse can become a guarantee for style fatigue, so it probably won't be long before the term will be viewed as yesterday's stale bread. Of course, 20 years from now there will be a brief revival!

Kropf: I'm not opposed to it; it adds a sense of sophistication to a trendy activity.

Miller: Curating has been applied to all sorts of fields. I embrace this, as it suggests a level of expertise and that whatever has been assembled has been carefully considered.

Whitelaw: Museums tend to have lofty titles that mystify and often do us a disservice, making us seem elite. I feel that if the term is being used and understood by the public, then it can be positive.

Carrier: I am fine with the appropriation of the word by groups outside of the art world. Lexical trends may come and go. Ultimately, "curate" is a simple word. In the end, the work will always speak for itself.

Howard: I collect mostly prints and digital works because as editions they are affordable and don't require as much space to store.

Pevnick: I have become spoiled by working around magnificent art each day. I can't afford to have this type of art in my home, but that's okay with me. My wife and I have two beautiful young children and no shortage of their freshly made original artwork around our house.

Foe: Generally I seem to collect things associated with my pastimes and where they meet popular culture. For example, when I was younger, I did a lot of camping, and so during that time I collected flashlights like crazy. More recently I've been brewing beer, and so I seem to be accumulating bottle openers.

Smith: I collect many different types of art, but I am especially fond of handmade painted papier-mache objects from Cuba — wall plates, purses, cats, coffee pots, classic cars. It's an art born of poverty and ingenuity. I find it on the streets of Havana, and it's very affordable.

Jeffett: I don't really collect but I do have a few pieces I like.